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Liese Sherwood-Fabre: A Not-So-Gentlemanly Game of Cards

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Sherlock Holmes Yellow Paperback Reader

(Yellow) Paperback Reader - Author: Liese Sherwood-Fabre

Dr. Watson tried to amuse himself while waiting for Holmes’ return in “The Boscombe Valley Mystery” by reading a yellow-back novel, and Violet Hunter read one to her employer Rucastle in “The Adventure of the Copper Beeches.” The creation and popularity of these novels coincided with increased railway travel and represented a highly popular innovation in British publishing that, though short-lived, provided a more literate population with classics as well as original works. The public had access to Jane Austen’s novels and the first British translation of Pushkin’s The Queen of Spades, among others. (1) For current historians, they provide a glimpse into the interests and lives of Victorians. (2)

The term “yellow back” comes from an advancement in engraving developed by Edmund Evans. The wood engraver developed a process in 1847 using three printings—one with the outline and two additional blocks providing color tint. In addition, he printed these on yellow-glazed paper to give books an eye-catching cover. While paperbacks were cheaper (12.5 pence, or 25 cents vs. 25 pence or 50 cents), they were worth the added expense. The fiberboard was sturdier, and the type had been reset, making the text easier to read. (3)

While several publishers produced these books, George Routledge was the most successful with his “Railway Library” series, offered from 1848 to 1899. Most of these would have been sold by William Henry Smith (W.H. Smith) from his railway bookstalls. Smith opened his first kiosk in the Euston station in 1848, and by 1860, he had stores on all major and many secondary lines. (4) Both the books and the stalls were designed to appeal to the railway traveler, providing light entertainment for the trip, at the end of which the book might be traded for another, thrown away, or passed on. (5) The covers, with their bright colors and action scenes, were designed to be seen from 20 yards away. (6) Given that Watson visited the railway station prior to starting his yellow-backed novel, he most likely picked it up at that time.

The popularity of these books was also due to their subject matter. Academic circles referred to these as “sensation” novels with stories attracting an audience through tales depicting lives of moral ambiguity: fallen women, extramarital sex, and murder. (7) Some theories also suggest that railway travel itself supported the popularity of such themes. Going long distances among strangers gave passengers more freedom in their reading choices without condemnation of family and friends. (8)

Whatever lay behind their popularity, critics became concerned about the influence these books had upon the population. W.H. Smith personally reviewed the books and their advertisements to ensure they were not morally corrupt. (9) While mainly fiction books, other topics were also offered, including science, medicine, and sports. (10) Despite such efforts, the books had their critics. Oscar Wilde in Dorian Gray had his depraved main character use some of these novels as a guide for his life, although in the end he decided such corruption came from within and not through the reading material. (11)

Given the disposable nature of these books, not many exist today, although WH Smith did reproduce some for their 225th anniversary in 2017, including The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes. (12) Outside of the “classics,” many were never published except in this format and in an effort to preserve them for social historians and others, some projects have digitized them for future readers. Emory University has more than 1000 available for download, which can be found here:

While Watson found the plot in his own yellow back thin, readers of Sherlock’s yellow-back adventures wouldn’t have found the same.

Liese Sherwood-Fabre recently appeared on two different podcasts, which can be seen on A.F. Stewart’s Facebook page.

A. F. Stewart: A Between the Pages Book Chat with Liese Sherwood-Fabre

or heard at JMD Reid’s blog at In both, she shared about her “Early Case Files of Sherlock Holmes” series available at all major booksellers. Links can be found at She will be presenting at Bouchercon 2021 in New Orleans in August and signing copies of these books and others during the convention.

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3) Ibid

Keywords: Liese Sherwood-Fabre, Sherlock Holmes, books, Watson, Paperback Reader, Oscar Wilde, Dorian Gray, A.F. Stewart, yellow-back novel

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